Agriculture has been a mainstay in Boundary County for most of the past century. With fertile valley soil and farmable benches, incomes and food supplies have grown abundantly for generations. But there’s an agricultural trend that’s taking root in North Idaho with spreading interest, known as permaculture.
Permaculture, by definition, is the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self sufficient. The word, coined in the early 1970s by pioneers of the field, Bill Mollison and David Holgrem, is the combination of “permanent” and “agriculture.” Mollison describes it further: “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”
In a county full of beautiful nature, permaculture could be viewed as a natural fit. For some growers, it’s a wide-open field to play in and learn from.
Two local enthusiasts, Casimir Holeski and Josh Thomas, started gardening to provide healthy, affordable organic food for themselves and their growing families. While researching to expand their knowledge, they both came across permaculture, and after determining how well it fit their needs and lifestyle, turned it into rapidly evolving careers.
Josh earned his permaculture design certificate from the Permaculture Research Institute, founded by another pioneer, Geoff Lawton. Josh and his wife, Carolyn, own The Homesteading Family, their story of a holistic lifestyle with an online presence (HomesteadingFamily.com), including a blog, Facebook page, Instagram and an ongoing series of YouTube tutorial videos. Josh runs his own permaculture design and consulting business, working locally, nationally and internationally; he traveled to Africa recently to design a project there.
As the owner of Infinity Matrix Permaculture Nursery, Casimir keeps his focus local, working on a variety of projects. He is the founder of the Boundary County Fruit and Nut Exchange and the Boundary County Orchard Reforestation Project, both intent on reestablishing and preserving historical trees still growing around the county, an interest shared with other enthusiasts. Casimir feels that permaculture is more than an agricultural term but part of how he lives his life throughout every aspect. He believes that whatever he grows, including his information and experience base, is not for his own benefit or financial gain but to be shared abundantly. Casimir has Facebook pages for all three entities for anyone wanting more information about what he does.
Permaculture begins with a ridiculously easy step, per Josh: “Do nothing.” Stopping to observe the land before beginning your project will lead to a deeper understanding of where to start. Watching how the sun and shadows move across the ground throughout the day assist with planting according to plant’s needs or preferences. Looking at natural water distribution is useful for setting up water storage and planning growing areas. Paying attention to growing structure helps recognize the best places to plant.
After determining how nature works, Casimir and Josh suggest laying out growing spaces known as zones. These zones range from one to five with higher maintenance plants that need careful tending being closer to the house, spreading out to hardier and more sustainable vegetables, berry patches, orchards, fields, woodlots and wilderness areas.
Then comes the fun part: Get busy! Try new layout ideas, practice companion or succession planting, utilize whatever possible with mindfulness of how it can protect or enrich the soil. Even weeds are beneficial as moisture-retaining ground cover while small; later, pull and use as mulch and to put organic matter back into the soil. Make compost with scraps and trimmings. Take extra care of what is sown and reap the benefits. Even though they’re leasing their farm, Josh and Carolyn have carefully plotted out adequate areas in the existing landscape to provide for their family of 10. By using every space effectively, nurturing existing fruit and nut trees and raising their own livestock, Josh estimates that 75 percent of their food comes from the property.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Experimenting with permaculture is crucial to learning. Josh found this out when an innovative growing hoop, planted with pole beans to provide shade for cabbages that don’t thrive in hotter weather, also inadvertently provided protection from the yearly onslaught of flea beetles. The pole bean canopy hid the cabbages, and they finished the season with better quality and less bug damage.
Also watch nature for cues to handle problems. Casimir noticed that a tent caterpillar infestation in his first orchard was being removed by a swarm of hornets; something he confirmed by researching online. Hornets attack the caterpillars and use them to feed their young, eliminating the need for sprays and letting nature work with itself. Hornet nests near buildings are removed by spraying them with water, just as rain washes them away in the wild.
Take advantage of an abundance of knowledge available locally and online. Josh and Casimir will gladly give advice; sharing to help others learn is a strong part of permaculture philosophy. Casimir recently hosted a panel discussion about exploring permaculture at the Extension Office, along with Josh and fellow enthusiast, Sean Mitzel of Cocolalla, and both men are open to teaching more.
Kate Painter, University of Idaho’s agricultural extension educator in Bonners Ferry, believes permaculture fits well into categories the university supports as part of its ongoing work serving small farms and food systems locally. Along the current services, such as the Master Gardener program and plant and insect clinics, Kate hopes to offer more permaculture classes to help people learn how it can work for them. She also encourages anyone who is currently experimenting with permaculture to contact her if they’d like to teach a class.
There’s a hands-on way to learn about permaculture-volunteering with the Boundary Community Hospital Food Forest, a project organized and co-developed by Casimir and assisted by Josh and Sean. The project includes reestablishing historical fruit trees on the vacant lot next to the hospital, along with creating a sustainable food garden for hospital residents and staff, with a working classroom, living agricultural museum and community space.
Visioning for Boundary County’s permaculture future includes a local cooperative and marketplace to enable year-round income possibilities for farmers, producers and artisans. Marketing items online could be a viable option of that. Another goal is to expand permaculture with educational community-uniting opportunities, including ways to keep youth employed and gain skills for their own small-scale permaculture farms.
While Boundary County has traditionally been blessed with agricultural abundance, there’s always room for learning and trying new methods to enhance what nature has already given. People like Casimir and Josh hope to spread permaculture roots deep, teaching others to share their passion and create viable, self-sufficient and sustainable ecosystems here that will last for generations to come.